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And What of the Anti-Heroine?

Louise Brooks, silent cinema’s best-known anti-heroine, plots her next move in “Pandora’s Box.”

It’s Villains and Anti-Heroes Week here at Ye Olde Sweet Rocket! That, my darlings, includes Anti-Heroines, as well!

There’s plenty of room for bad boys in Romanceland, but the world of romance leaves little space for the anti-heroine, otherwise known as the difficult, unlikeable or villainous heroine.

The accepted intelligence is that romance readers, overwhelmingly female, need to be able to identify with the heroine, or imagine themselves in her place. Perhaps this explains the lack of anti-heroines, in romance — few women want to imagine themselves as the courtesan or whore, the bitch or the duplicitous, conniving sort. It goes to follow that the number of bad girl heroines is few. After all, no one likes mean girls.

But every so often, a bad girl heroine slips through the cracks. Here are a few of the Romanceland anti-heroines that stand out in my memory:

Lady Jocelyn Kendal — The Bargain by Mary Jo Putney

Lady Jocelyn was the first anti-heroine I ever encountered in romance, and boy, is she a doozy. In order to secure her inheritance, she needs to marry, and quickly. The man she has her eye on isn’t coming to heel fast enough for her purposes, so she decides to marry a dying Waterloo veteran, David Lancaster, with the hopes of being a widow in time to receive her inheritance and capture the man she wants. Poor Lancaster, as nice as the day is long from the time we meet him, agrees to do this only because Lady Jocelyn agrees to settle an income on his sister Sally, who naturally takes an instant disliking to Lady Jocelyn.

Lady Jocelyn is also responsible for my all-time favorite bad-girl scene in a romance. How’s this for nasty:

Turning to her writing desk, [Lady Jocelyn] lifted a jingling leather bag and tossed it to Sally….
“You needn’t count the money. It’s all there — one hundred twenty five pounds in gold.”
Sally’s head snapped up. “Not thirty pieces of silver?”
Jocelyn said softly, each word carved in ice, “Of course not. Silver is for selling people. Since I was buying, I paid in gold.”

Oh, that Jocelyn — ain’t she sweet? Naturally David Lancaster does not die, Lady Jocelyn becomes less than a virago, and there’s the obligatory happily-ever-after.

Bryony Asquith — Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas

Bryony, a late-Victorian era physician,  is curmudgeonly, driven, and unforgiving. Which sort of makes her a Victorian-era female Dr. House. Unfortunately, that means she’s curmudgeonly and unforgiving to her darling husband, Leo, and so driven to prove herself the equal of any man that she all but emasculates him,  separates from him (hence the title) and literally leaves the country. That’s my kind of girl, really, and despite all her obvious flaws, I liked her. But then I don’t have to sleep with her — why Leo puts up with her is beyond me. Yet for whatever reason, he’s willing to risk life and limb to go to India to fetch her back home to England, and there lies the story. In the course of fetching her back, he also manages to, well… I won’t say that he redeems her completely, but she’s much less prickly by the end of the book. Leo is a wonderful hero, and the book is worth it just to get to know him.

Lydia Slaughter — A Gentleman Undone by Cecelia Grant

How about that Lydia (cue theatrical wolf-whistle)? First of all, she’s a former prostitute and the mistress to a nobleman, and makes no apologies for it. Also, she’s a cardsharp who fleeces the hero, Will Blackshear, out of a nice chunk of change at the outset of the book. Instead of giving it back, like the standard romance heroine would when she realizes that he really needs the money, she engages him in a scheme to fleece more unwitting fools out of their money. She may also be a full-on nymphomaniac. Before you start throwing rotten tomatoes, that’s not slut-shaming, and plenty of other reviewers have also noted Lydia’s strange relationship to sex, which, from a modern psychological standpoint, is likely the well-documented phenomenon of post-sexual abuse promiscuity. Aside from all that, Lydia’s an admirable, wildly intelligent, honorable heroine — unless she’s trying to rob some poor gambler blind.

Mina Masters — Written on Your Skin by Meredith Duran

Mina’s sort of a toss-up, when it comes to an anti-heroine; while you realize that she’s very much a victim of her circumstances, that of a self-made Victorian-era woman trying to fend for herself against a cruel stepfather, she still comes across as manipulative and somewhat selfish. Phin, the hero, is pretty miserable, too. They deserve each other.

Lady Elizabeth — Lady Elizabeth’s Comet by Sheila Simonson

Just read my review. That tells you everything you need to know about snooty Lady Elizabeth.

Mary Gray — The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart

Well, she was planning to finagle an estate and fortune out of a dying old man… wasn’t she?

Ugh — I just realized I have no contemporary anti-heroines, aside from Mary Gray! That’s indicative of two things: one, I don’t read much contemporary romance, and two, most of the contemporaries I have read had really nice heroines. What, pray tell, does that mean?

Also note that at least three of our anti-heroines are driven by greed, another two driven by their careers, while at least one is prostitute/mistress. What does that tell us about the acceptable motivations for bad-girl behavior in romance? Plenty. It’s okay to be greedy or just plain mean if your evil, misguided or dead male relatives or rakish lovers have left you in dire straits, as is the case with Lady Jocelyn, Mary Gray, Lydia Slaughter and Mina Masters (and, to an extent, Lady Elizabeth). You can also get a pass for being what is, frankly, a bitch, as long as you’re doing so because the man is holding you down, i.e., keeping you from joining the scientific or medical community, as in the cases of Lady Elizabeth and Bryony. In other words, in every example I’ve noted here, the anti-heroine’s bad behavior is acceptable because it’s a reaction to behavior that’s just as bad or worse on the part of men.

Personally, I’d like to see anti-heroine who’s bad just for the sake of being bad. Maybe she’s a female rake, flirting and teasing her way through a bevy of men. Maybe she’s a villainess who causes trouble for meeker, cowering souls. Maybe she’s just a bitch because she wants to be one, not because her daddy didn’t love her enough. It’s time we see a real female villain redeemed by the love of a good man — we see enough of the reverse, certainly.
I will probably have to write that romance myself, but if anyone, anywhere, knows of any good anti-heroines I’ve missed, do tell — I’m dying to read one!

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Goodreads Review: Lady Elizabeth’s Comet by Sheila Simonson

Lady Elizabeth's CometLady Elizabeth’s Comet by Sheila Simonson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Have you ever read a book once, and thought meh, then went back again and found it a totally different book? That’s me and Lady Elizabeth’s Comet. 

Part of my problem when first reading Lady Elizabeth’s Comet was, unfortunately, Lady Elizabeth. Lady Elizabeth is as near to an anti-heroine as you’ll find in a Traditional Regency. She’s short-tempered and snobbish, often treating the hero (and various other characters in the book) unkindly or dismissively. Interested more in astronomy than the people around her, it seems amazing that Lady Elizabeth could somehow attract not one but two suitors, her father’s heir, Tom Conroy, Lord Clanross, and Clanross’ close friend, Lord Bevis.

But as it turns out, some of the same pejoratives I applied to Lady Elizabeth applied to me as a reader, at least on my first go round with Lady Elizabeth’s Comet. If you stick with the book long enough to make friends with Lady Elizabeth, you’ll find she’s also funny and smart, and eventually all-too-aware of her own shortcomings. 

I won’t spoil the book for you by revealing which of her suitors Lady Elizabeth chooses, but I will say that although Lady Elizabeth is one of the least romantic female leads I’ve ever personally encountered, the romance that develops almost painfully slowly over the course of the book is delicious.  It will remind you more of an Austen romance than even a Heyer romance.

I find myself returning to Lady Elizabeth’s Comet  when I’m burned out on trite or trope-filled Traditional Regencies, or just want a great example of everything that is wonderful about the Traditional Regency genre.

View all my reviews